A University of Arkansas at Little Rock student gave a TEDx talk at the University of Arkansas at Monticello on March 26 to share her story of how two service dogs have dramatically changed her life for the better.
“Service dog handlers are already behind the 8 Ball because they have any number of disabilities with which they have to deal on a daily basis,” said Emilia Rak, a junior social work major at UA Little Rock. “Our service dogs are not merely cuddly pets or cool accessories for aggregation. They are invaluable assets that help to mitigate aspects of our disabilities so that we can have an improved quality of life. We don’t want or need special treatment. We just want to be treated with kindness and respect, like everybody else.”
Rak was one of the speakers selected for the TEDxUA Monticello event. Four years ago, Rak, who said she has post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) because she was a victim of domestic violence, could not imagine how far she has come with the addition of a service dog in her life.
“I want people to understand how invaluable service dogs can be to their handlers for a wide variety of disabilities,” she said. “They have service dogs for autism, diabetes, hearing loss, and now they are realizing how helpful service dogs can be for people who have PTSD from domestic violence. Without a service dog, I never would have been able to come back to school. My life would just be trips to the doctor’s office and back home.”
Rak’s service dog, Rooster the King of the Universe, helps her with anxiety, panic attacks, concentration, and nightmares.
“When Rooster senses that I’m anxious, he’ll step between me and other people. If I am having a panic attack, he will push up to me and lay on me and calm me down,” she said. “Within a week of getting my first service dog, I reduced the amount of medication I was taking by half.”
Because of her service dog, Rak often faces uncomfortable situations. She has been denied service in restaurants and hotels, and some people believe that she is faking having a disability.
“Some people think I have a dog because I want attention,” Rak said. “I was physically assaulted eight months ago in a gym by a woman who thought I didn’t need a service animal because I wasn’t blind. One lady in Walmart prayed with me to restore my sight because she assumed I was blind. I didn’t have the heart to tell her the truth. People will thank me for my service because they automatically assume that I am a combat veteran as the public is becoming more aware of PTSD service dogs for veterans.”
The most common problem Rak encounters is that people want to pet her service dog.
“The reason you are not supposed to pet a service dog is because they are working. If the dog is distracted, then the handler’s well being could be compromised,” Rak said. “All service dogs are not allowed to sniff. They can’t run around with kids. They don’t beg for food. They don’t chase squirrels. They don’t bark unless they are trained to alert someone about a problem. It can take as long as three years to train a service dog. People don’t realize how hard it is for these dogs. They are trained to be totally devoted to their handlers when they are working.
“I just want people to think. These are not show ponies. They are hard-working service dogs. For all the well-meaning dog lovers out there, you’d be surprised how many people, like doctors and politicians, don’t know that they aren’t supposed to pet a service dog. If I say no, it doesn’t mean I’m the Wicked Witch of the West. It just means no.”
Rak, who got married at age 21 when she lived in New Jersey, said she developed PTSD and bipolar disorder after losing custody of her four daughters to her ex-husband.
“All those years ago, when my ex took my children from me, I felt that I was the lowest form of life,” she said. “Emotionally, I was devastated. That’s how I became disabled. After years and years and hundreds of thousands dollars wasted in court, the attorney finally told me, ‘I can’t take any more of your money. It’s best for you to go home and wait for your daughters to come to you once they turn 18.’ That is when I slid into another reality.”
Thirteen years ago, Rak married her second husband, Dale, and the couple moved to Texas and then Little Rock. After recovering from a suicide attempt four years ago, she decided to go back to school and was accepted into a UA Little Rock honors college program. That is also when she got her first service dog, Chester the WonderDog, a rescue from Rock City Rescue.
“So far I’ve managed to maintain a 4.0 GPA, and it makes me feel very good, especially due to the disabilities that I now struggle with,” she said. “I’m 51, and I realized there is more life behind me than there is ahead of me. I want to live the kind of life that my daughters will be proud of.”
Throughout her time at UA Little Rock, the Disability Resource Center has been of tremendous help to her.
“The Disability Resource Center has been very helpful in contacting my professors and communicating my accomodations, and there is a group for people with learning disabilities that I have attended,” she said. “That is another reason why I am so enthusiastically trying to lure people to UA Little Rock. Between the professors, Disability Resource Center, and the Writing Center, everyone here is so willing to help you succeed.”
Rak encountered another misfortune last year when her first service dog, Chester, unexpectedly died, and she had to drop out of school for a semester while she trained Rooster.
“The grief of having him die so suddenly, but then to train another dog and maintain school was too much,” she said. “It takes a tremendous amount of energy to train a service dog. Without the trainer that Rock City Rescue provided, I never could’ve done the job.”
Now back in school, Rak is on track to graduate in 2020 and is dedicated to spend the rest of her career paying forward the kindness she received when she needed help.
“I want to help people,” she said. “There were a lot of social workers who were kind and empathetic and helped me to get the services I needed when I needed them the most. I want to give back by paying it forward, and social work is my way of giving back. I want to be an art therapist eventually.”
Now that Rak is at a good place in her life, she is committed to giving back and spreading awareness about service animals, mental health awareness, and suicide prevention.
She produced a video that is used on the School of Social Work’s website as a teaching tool about mental health stigma and has given a lecture on stress management at the Arkansas State Hospital Auxiliary. She also creates one-of-a-kind mugs that she delivers to people and organizations who are making a difference for people affected by mental health struggles.
“This project serves as my own art therapy. The mugs take two to six hours to make,” she said. “There’s no room for negative noise to get in my mind when I am making art. The point of the mug is to have something that makes people smile, even if it’s just for a little while. Because, as my favorite quote says, ‘just one small positive thought in the morning can change your whole day.’”
In the upper right photo, Emilia Rak pets her service dog, Rooster. Photo by Benjamin Krain.